The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has just issued the final designation of critical habitat for bull trout, a threatened species found throughout much of the northwest. The action designates nearly 19,000 miles of streams and 488,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Nevada.
Bull trout need clean cold water to thrive. Once plentiful, bull trout were found in more than 60% of the Columbia River basin, but are now occurring in less than half their historical range. They were originally listed as a threatened species in 1999.
Critical habitat designations (pdf) provide extra regulatory protection and management considerations for the species. Specific habitat areas are then prioritized for recover actions. Such protections do not affect ownership of land, and do not impose restrictions on non-federal lands (unless related to some action for which federal permits would be required). Overall, nearly 64 % of the designated habitat occurs on federal lands.
The Bush administration proposed habitat protections in 2005 which included less than half the habitat covered under this new designation. The Bush era rules were challenged in Court, and the agency requested a remand in 2009 to re-work the designation, based in part on flaws identified by the Interior Department’s Inspector General.
Bull trout are threatened by poor water quality, habitat degradation and fragmentation, blockage of migratory corridors, past fisheries management, climate change, and non-native invasive species like lake and brook trout.
Like a canary in a coal mine, the sensitive bull trout are an excellent indicator of water quality. Protecting bull trout habitat contributes not only to the species but to water quality throughout their range.
In Idaho, 8772 miles of stream and 170,000 acres of lakes or reservoirs are covered by the designation. In our basin, Coeur d’Alene Lake and the main stem of the Coeur d’Alene River are included. Also designated are the north fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, and the St. Joe River, and most of their tributaries. The Clark Fork and Kootenai Rivers, along with Lake Pend Oreille, Priest Lake, are on the critical habitat list in North Idaho.